July 5, 2016
Will Minnesota Comeback play a starring role in Minneapolis’s 2016 school board race?
In Nashville and Indianapolis, Minnesota Comeback’s brothers-in-arms, known as “Nashville RISE” and “The Mind Trust,” have attempted to do just that, in their own cities’ elections. On June 16, education policy analyst, Andy Spears, wrote about this for his blog, Tennessee Education Report. In his posts, Spears tries to devise just who and what Nashville RISE is, and why they have jumped into the Metro Nashville School Board (MNSB) race. In so doing, he cites Minnesota Comeback and The Mind Trust as reference points.
Quick overview: Nashville RISE, Minnesota Comeback and The Mind Trust are three of the twenty-four splinter groups–or “harbormasters“–under the wing of the Memphis-based reform outfit, Education Cities. Education Cities is funded by the usual billionaire suspects, yet its overlord-like connection to all of these offshoots is not exactly well-known. Instead, each group–Minnesota Comeback included–maintains an image of homespun helpmate for their city’s ever-struggling public school systems. (Background on Minnesota Comeback can be found here.)
Nashville RISE has landed in some hot water lately, by trying to insert itself–in a less than transparent way–into Nashville’s school board race, according to Spears:
The involvement of Project Renaissance/Nashville RISE in this year’s MNPS school board races has been the source of a bit of controversy, from promoting (then deleting) an event with Stand for Children to a Phil Williams story raising questions about the source of funding and lack of disclosure.
As the Phil Williams story points out, Nashville RISE is incredibly well-funded, backed by money from philanthropic interests and by supporters of the charter school movement. Also backed by some donors who don’t want their identities revealed.
Nashville RISE has, among other things, produced slick video ads for its own forum on the Nashville school board race, with a promise that the group is all about building a “network of engaged parents” who will help advocate for high quality schools for all. Sounds great, as does Nashville RISE’s further mission of working to help schools “care for students and families holistically,” and so on.
But, as Spears’s blog posts point out, the group is aligned with Education Cities and its politically savvy funders, who must know that describing one’s mission as “holistic,” and “parent-driven” provides safe cover for other, more nefarious goals. Also, Nashville RISE is directly connected to Stand for Children–an organization whose transformation from legitimate advocacy group to mostly corrupted outlet for ALEC and Teach for America, et al, should serve as a warning for anyone tempted to fall for Nashville RISE’s flowery, pro-family rhetoric.
But why is Nashville RISE involved in that city’s school board race? And why might Minnesota Comeback attempt to wield influence in the 2016 Minneapolis race?
For answers, look no further than The Mind Trust. This Indianapolis-based group was featured in a May, 2016 American Prospect article called, “Hedging Education: How Hedge Funders Spurred the Pro-Charter Political Network.” In the article, writer Justin Miller describes how TFA alum and hedge fund success story, Whitney Tilson, started the pro-charter political action committee, Democrats for Education Reform (DFER):
Straight out of Harvard, Tilson deferred a consulting job in Boston to become one of Teach For America’s first employees in 1989. Ten years later, he started his own hedge fund in New York. Soon after that, Teach For America founder Wendy Kopp took him on a visit to a charter school in the South Bronx. It was an electrifying experience for him. “It was so clearly different and so impactful,” Tilson says. “Such a place of joy, but also rigor.”
When Tilson observed pushback on the growth of KIPP, a charter school chain often linked with the “no excuses” model, he rallied a cadre of like-minded hedge funders, and started DFER:
,,,Basically, if you were anybody who was anybody in hedge funds, you probably chipped in. Tilson called the group Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), and set it with a mission “to break the teacher unions’ stranglehold over the Democratic Party.”
Early on, DFER identified then-Senator Barack Obama and then–Newark Mayor Cory Booker as promising politicians willing to break with teachers unions. DFER was instrumental in convincing Obama to appoint charter-friendly Chicago Superintendent Arne Duncan as secretary of education, and it spent a lot of time and money lobbying the administration to pursue reformist education policies like Race to the Top and Common Core. Tied to Obama’s coattails, DFER was now one of the most influential political players in the ascendant education-reform movement.
It’s not hard to believe that Tilson’s group, DFER, has had tremendous success shaping federal education policy. It has. But that’s not enough. Hedge funders don’t rest with one victory, or one successful fund. They want more. And so, Miller writes, DFER expanded:
As it found tremendous success at the federal level, DFER tried to maximize its newfound influence to leverage reform in local politics.
Here’s where Indianapolis comes in. Beginning in 2010-2011, as Miller notes, The Mind Trust used grant money to bring in “DFER, the advocacy group Stand For Children, and the network of political money that came with them.” With new political and hedge fund-fueled financial muscle, The Mind Trust helped flip the 2012 and 2014 Indianapolis school board races, stacking the board with hand-picked reform advocates, such as DFER national board member, Mary Ann Sullivan. Under the influence of DFER and its acolytes, the Indianapolis school board brought on a “friendly” superintendent, Lewis Ferebee, who has overseen the expansion of neoliberal education reform strategies. (Important note: Indianapolis, like Nashville and Minneapolis, is under the policy influence of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, or “CRPE.”)
In 2011, the reform landscape shifted in Minneapolis, too, when the local RKMC Foundation, started by attorney Mike Ciresi, provided seed money to outside education reform outfits, such as Teach for America, Educators for Excellence, MinnCAN and SFER (Students for Education Reform). The RKMC Foundation, which is closely aligned with the Minneapolis Foundation and its market-based reform priorities, is also a strong supporter of Minnesota Comeback. (Amy Hertzel, McKinsey & Co. alum and former education policy person for the Minneapolis Foundation, is now a “Partner” at Education Cities.)
In 2012, just like in Indianapolis, Minneapolis saw the most money ever spent on its once-lowly, but suddenly high stakes, school board race. Teach for America alum and new Minneapolis resident, Josh Reimnitz, won a spot on the school board with a little help from well-connected friends. Here’s a taste of that simpler time, when a five-figure race (Reimnitz raised close to $40,000 in 2012) was considered extravagant and shocking:
An example of how the TFA network helped Reimnitz was an October fundraiser that raised about 15 percent of his campaign treasury. It was held at the Edina home of Matthew Kramer, TFA’s national president, who is married to a TFA alum who works for a group that promotes high-quality charter schools.
An independent expenditure of about $6,000 for a mailing sent by the political arm of New York-based school reform group 50CAN, for which Kramer is board chair, also drew complaints. It was the first school board donation by the young group, which has focused on legislative contests in the East.
–Minneapolis Star Tribune, November, 2012: “Minneapolis school election has national implications“
Fast forward to 2014. Then, outside investors such as Michael Bloomberg and California venture capitalist and TFA board member, Arthur Rock, deluged the Minneapolis school board race with an eye-popping $250,000 in campaign funds.
That money was funneled through a pop-up PAC, the “Minneapolis Progressive Education Fund,” led by TFA alum and MinnCAN boss, Daniel Sellers. (MinnCAN is a franchise of 50CAN, also started by East Coast hedge funders.) This fund famously backed two candidates (from afar, of course, thanks to Citizens United)–Don Samuels and Iris Altamirano–and attempted to defeat incumbent Rebecca Gagnon.
In a 2014 interview, Sellers downplayed the mountain of outside money shadowing the race, saying the contributions from people like Bloomberg were nothing more than an “indication that they care about Minneapolis.” (Sellers is now the policy chair for Minnesota Comeback’s “coalition.”)
The money helped land Samuels on the school board, but Gagnon made it anyway, while Altamirano did not. Perhaps that is why this year’s school board race has, thus far, been relatively quiet. Will investors squander more hard-earned, hedge fund dollars on the 2016 Minneapolis race, if their estimated ROI is minimal?
Enter Minnesota Comeback. This group, like its counterparts in Nashville and Indianapolis, has the bank account and political connections to make a big splash in this year’s race, albeit from a dignified, Citizens United distance (for a primer on how this is done, look to 2014). While no candidate forums appear to have been scheduled, yet, (unlike August 2014, when, for example, the dubious “People’s Forum” was held in Minneapolis), the first round of campaign finance reports for school board candidates is due on August 6.
Those reports should reveal which Minneapolis school board candidates are getting what money–asked for or not–from the cabal of DFER-like reformers in Minnesota and beyond.
Thus far, there is no real contest for the one citywide spot, which is likely to go to incumbent, Kim Ellison. Seats in districts 2, 4 and 6 are being contested, with incumbents Josh Reimnitz (4) and Tracine Asberry (6) running despite failing to secure the endorsement of Minneapolis’s Democratic party (both had said they would not run without this endorsement, but later entered the race at the last minute).
School board seats secured with reform resources could help Minnesota Comeback achieve its goal of bringing “30,000 rigorous and relevant seats” to Minneapolis by 2025. (The focus on “high quality seats” rather than students or schools is a popular Education Cities marketing pitch, perhaps meant for venture capitalist ears.) In an era of low funding and high expectations for public ed, anything seems possible.
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